Who is the Black Panther?, the first trade from veteran author Reginald Hudlin and the always-amazing John Romita Jr, sounds more like a mission statement than a title. This title came out in 2006, almost 10 years ago, and as odd as it might be to understand for future readers of this blog: there was a time when members of the Avengers were so obscure that the average joe weren’t aware of them, thus necessitating an opening chapter than answers the basic question: who the hell is this?
To its extreme credit, this graphic novel isn’t just rehashing the origin story we’ve already seen as many comics often do. instead it takes fresh look at the Black Panther, exploring not just T’Challa himself but the myth behind T’Challa, exploring other leaders of Wakanda (the fictional African nation wherein T’Challa rules) who have donned the mantle of the Panther.
For those of you not in-the-know, and who perhaps heard Wakana and Vibranium mentioned in Avengers: Age of Ultron and are wondering what the heck that was, this book is a great place to jump on. It tells you literally everything you need to know.
The book jumps up and up from early Wakandan history, specifically when it was attempted to be conquered by both neighboring tribes and, later, by European settlers. Because that’s the trick with Wakanda: despite for all appearances being a primitive African tribe, its walls have never been breached and it has never once in its long history been conquered.
This is because its status as a “simple” tribe is a carefully conceived hoax: Wakanda is actually the most technologically-advanced nation on the planet. So advanced are they that they had computers while the rest of the world was inventing gunpowder, and have already cured all diseases like cancer and AIDS. However, they also have ridged religious and spiritual beliefs, and believe that to share their gifts with the rest of the world before they reach enlightenment would be dangerous to those cultures and to the world at large. So they stay in their African home and wait for the rest of the world to catch up with them.
To some this seems far-fetched, and when the character was created in the 60s-era Marvel during the time of the civil rights movement, it was meant to subvert stereotypes regarding African characters: in that light, he is one of Marvel’s first “political” characters, and also a first for the Avengers. But actually, as time goes on and science makes more and more discoveries, these origins make more and more sense. Hear me out: Africa has, for a few years now, been accepted by the scientific community as the “cradle of civilization,” ie: the place where all human life originated. Given that, within the fictional context of the Marvel Universe, it’s not hard to imagine Wakanda being the “Cradle of Civilization,” thus explaining why this long-lived civilization is so much more advanced than us. They’ve just been doing things longer.
But that’s not in the novel, and nor do I expect it to be.
In the novel, Hudlin outlines a few different invasion attempts throughout history, including one led by Captain America during the Second World War, before chronicling T’Challa’s rise to power and his owns thwarting of an invasion attempt at a time roughly akin to the formation of the Avengers, as it involves early members of the Masters of Evil and the Rhino right before he first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man. So in a way, this novel chronicles the history of the Black Panther from the early days right up until his chronological first appearance, wherein he was eventually revealed to be a spy for Wakanda, and explains why he would want to spy on the Avengers: he was gaining information after this attack. From here Hudlin can tell whatever story he wants, secure in the knowledge that we know what’s what.
This is a thoroughly entertaining novel, and brings a unique concept to the forefront of the Marvel Universe. I can only hope the movie is half as good.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
” From here Hudlin can tell whatever story he wants, secure in the knowledge that we know what’s what.”